Perry Sparks, a local car wholesaler and self-professed "dog person," hasn't had many small pets. Maybe a few goldfish. But his young nephew is a devoted caregiver of all sorts of small animals: hamsters, spiders, snakes, gerbils, even hermit crabs.
"I asked my sister-in-law what she did when his pets died. She said they put them in plastic bags, shoeboxes, or Tupperware bowls and buried them in the backyard," says Sparks, a man with graying hair and large deep eyes.
Sparks began searching for a small animal casket, both online and in local pet stores. Though he found plenty of dog and cat coffins, he couldn't find anything small enough to provide a mouse with a proper burial.
"I went to a hobby store and found a little box to use as the prototype. I painted it and lined it with felt," Sparks says. "When I got through, I had a piece of felt left over, so I folded it up and made a little pillow."
Sparks' wife Cheryl says, "He put that pillow in, and my daughter and I were like, 'Oh, that is the cutest thing we've ever seen.'"
After receiving his family's approval of the prototype, Sparks created four different sizes, the largest of which can accommodate a rabbit.
At Little John's Animall in Cordova, Sparks' Heaven's Pets kits are displayed near the live mice. Sparks' first customer bought one for her hamster.
"A lady came in and noticed the display, and then a week later, her hamster died. She remembered seeing the burial kits, and she came back and bought one," Sparks says, a proud grin spreading across his face.
For now, he creates each box by hand. The product is protected under pre-patent laws, and if it sells well, Sparks plans to have it manufactured and sold across the country.
"When we start manufacturing them, we will continue to use biodegradable products," Sparks says. "We want this to be Earth-friendly. If you're going to be putting this into the ground, you don't want it to sit there like plastic."
Sparks also wants to keep the kits affordable. Currently, the boxes range from $4.99 to $9.99 depending on size. Some larger animal caskets can cost up to $200.
"Moms would probably spend the extra money," Sparks says. "But dads are going to say, 'We only spent $2 on that hamster. I'm not going to spend $50 on a burial kit.'"